A project over a decade in the making, Toil and Trouble hits the shelves Wednesday, September 14th. But what went into the creation of this Shakespearean tale? I was able to ask the writer, Maighread Scott, and the artists, Kelly and Nichole Matthews, a few questions about this upcoming graphic novel!
Mexi Gremillion: Mairghread, you came up with the idea of this story in college and it’s grown into this fantastic graphic novel. How did your first ideas for these characters transform over time? You also say in “How Toil and Trouble was Written” that there was a failed film script and several past artists before you got to this iteration of your story. How many iterations of Toil and Trouble were there before it became this graphic novel? What was the journey like to get to this book?
Mairghread Scott: It’s a strange thing to write a book over a decade, especially a book about three women who literally control the fate of an entire nation. But we’re essentially a “fill in the blanks” story for the greatest writer of all time and I don’t think you get there overnight. I can’t say how many drafts and partial drafts there were, but Toil and Trouble was the kind of idea that would resurface every once and a while. One of those things you aren’t ready to write yet but can’t quite shake either.
I think the biggest thing that changed was how I felt about Fate. When I first thought of this idea, it was a raging epic where one women would take on and defeat Fate itself. But when I finally found the story I wanted to tell, it wasn’t so much about winning or losing, but a story about what it costs to win. By letting the story get messier, our witches became a lot more complex as characters. They became more human and Toil and Trouble became less about good vs. evil and more about a group of people try to figure out what good could even happen at this point in their lives.
By the time I got to where I knew it was a graphic novel and could finally tackle it, I also had the help of a number of different artists, including Sarah Stone and Kyla Vanderklugt. Shakespeare’s curse is definitely a thing and we had to switch editors and artists several times over the course of the project for various reasons. But each one left a bit of their mark on the book, making the look of Toil and Trouble just as complex as our story.
MG: The familiars are cool, but I’m wondering why you created them. I am not the biggest Shakespeare buff, but I don’t remember familiars while reading Macbeth in tenth grade. Did they come from your research? Also, the witches seem to be more than just human, and you see that as the story progresses. What was the process in figuring out what the witches are? Are they inspired from myths you have read as well or something that you have come up with on your own?
MS: The familiars are actually mentioned in the play; you just don’t see them onstage. But since we have an essentially unlimited “production budget” in a comic we get to show off a lot more of the witches’ abilities in our story, which means the familiars play a much bigger role as their sidekicks.
While our witches are definitely more than human, I tried to keep their abilities within what you’d see in Celtic mythology: turning into animals, controlling weather, disguising yourself, that kind of thing. They aren’t huge powers, but they make the witches subtle enemies. I wanted them to feel like they’re just tugging at the edges of the world. You can escape them, resist them, maybe even defeat them, but only if you can recognize their influence. I wanted them to be able to push mortals right up to the edge, but not over it. Since Toil and Trouble, like Macbeth, is all about choice, everyone is responsible for the bad (and really bad) decisions they make.
MG: Kelly and Nichole, Toil and Trouble seems to be one of the bigger projects you have worked on. What was it that brought you to working with Mairghread? What was it like for you two to work on this?
Kelly & Nichole Matthews: We had done very, very minor work for BOOM! in the past and our editor, Whitney Leopard, thought our style might be a good fit for it and had us do a test page. We didn’t end up getting the job, but a few months later Whitney contacted us to see if we were still available and to fill in for the previous artist.
It was a little scary to take this on, because not only was it our first time working for a publisher, but we had never had a workload quite on this scale before. Every aspect of producing a comic on the professional scale was new to us and we had a short learning curve! At times it was a struggle, but only because we still had to get used to sticking to the schedule. Thankfully we acclimated to it quickly, and came away with a wealth of experience. We joke that we were grinding XP for six months, and at the end leveled up!
MG: As I’ve said before, you all seemed to have done an abundance of research while creating this graphic novel. What made you choose the specific time periods for the witches? How did it impact the choices you made with each witch? The specificity of time periods seems very important to you as well. How important was it to you to be so accurate? Why go through all the pains for it?
MS: The devil is in the details in any story and I’m a firm believer that even when people don’t consciously realize there’s a glitch in a fictional world, it still starts to break down the overall “reality” of the story. I know it sounds silly to say in a story about magic, but I wanted Toil and Trouble to feel real, so the easiest way to do that was to ground it in as much actual history as I could find. It also had the added bonus of making everyone specific. The witches’ magic, designs, and outlooks are all unique because the real people from their time periods were vastly different from each other. Also all of them are from very different times than the humans around them.
I think it’s the Matthews sisters’ and my attention to these little details that make our characters feel three-dimensional. It makes them hard to box into “good guy” and “bad guy” and that gives our readers the unique opportunity to side with whichever character they want in our story and not be proven “wrong.”
MG: Mairghread, you say in your “What is Macbeth? How are We Different?” section that Toil and Trouble is a story about letting go, and I find that interesting. It seems as though characters are only able to let go when they finally acknowledge their pain and wrongdoings and forgive one another. You turned a story about greed and ambition into one about empathy, loss, and forgiveness. What brought you to a story so opposite to the one you are adapting?
MS: Macbeth is a play about a man tempted into ambition, greed, and paranoia. Both Macbeth and his wife are defined, more than anything, by what they lack (or feel they lack). They are creatures of need. The only way to tell a new story about them was to explore the source of that need and that’s where the witches come in. Since ambition and desire for power come from a feeling of insignificance and being without power, we built a story exploring what made the Macbeths (and the witches) feel that helpless.
If “fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate” as Yoda suggested, the only way to get our characters to face up to their hatred (and there’s a lot of hate running around in Toil and Trouble) was to make them dig back down to their own fears. It gave us a totally different “goal” than the play Macbeth. The question in our play isn’t if Macbeth will become king, but should he? We don’t wonder if the witches will hurt each other but if they can stop hurting each other. And that’s a story I feel is worth telling.
MG: Fate seems like a very obscure idea that the ‘witches’ feel is concrete. After reading the graphic novel, I am not sure if Fate is what they serve, or if the witches bend Fate to what they deem would be best. You also took Hecate, their supposed boss, out of the picture, mostly due to the fact that most scholars don’t think she was in the original play. The “Author’s Notes” on page 159 talk about the mentions of other ‘witches’ as a sign that the trio of the story aren’t the only ones trying to aid the Fate they deem the correct path. Making Fate so obscure where it seems so set in stone in Macbeth seems to be another distinction. What was the reasoning behind making no real boss among the witches and making Fate so vague?
MS: It’s simple: How can you disagree over what to do next if you know for sure what will happen? Not only is that no fun from a storytelling perspective, it just feels wrong. Macbeth is a play about choice and Toil and Trouble is a story about choice. Our choices don’t matter if everything is predetermined and I don’t think people like the idea of a fate set in stone; that’s why no one preaches predestination anymore. The tension between the fact that the witches believe so completely in their abilities as prophets, while the story itself never really confirms that for us, is one of the things I like most in Toil and Trouble. If you want to believe the witches are just deluding themselves and don’t really see the future, you’re right. If you want to say they do see the future (or perhaps one possible future), you’re right, too.
MG: Page 26—the scene where Macbeth almost dies in the heat of battle—is probably my favorite page throughout the whole graphic novel. I loved the paneling especially. In the copy I was given to read, you have a few pages in the back describing how you’d map out pages together. Was that process easy for you three? How did you go about contributing ideas and making beautiful pages like Macbeth’s near death? What was your favorite thing to write or draw for this graphic novel? Were there any challenges while trying to figure out how to make certain scenes work?
K&NM: Our favorite parts are definitely the magic! Magic, monsters, all that jazz, we love depicting that type of stuff. We loved getting to show that the magic the witches used was as wild and raw as they were, so as Riata and Smearte start breaking the rules of magic and begin to lose their forms, their magic also becomes rougher and more wild.
Some of the most challenging scenes for us were the quiet ones, like when Banquo and Macbeth are visited by Malcolm at the camp. Quiet scenes need more work to make them interesting, and that one in particular had a lot of characters to incorporate and was important to setting up later scenes in the issue. A lot of times we’d need to draft the scene three or more times before we found a layout that worked best (or sometimes good enough).
MS: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I love writing battles, especially the animal duels between our witches. Not only do I get to think of all the ways I can tell a story without words, I get to see what the Matthews sisters come up with, too. There are always situations where we need to shift a character or add a panel, but it was actually a remarkably smooth transition. Great artists make great art and it’s Toil and Trouble’s good fortune to have some really great artists.
MG: Are there any projects that any of you have in store for the future that you’re excited about?
MS: You can read more of my writing right now in my ongoing series Transformers: Till All Are One. It’s a tight political drama, but just like in Toil and Trouble, we try to make it appeal to those who don’t know a lot about our brand. It’s also a different way to explore the messy world of human beings, or in this case, giant robots. I encourage you to check it out!
K&NM: Yes, we have quite a few in the pipeline! There is Breaker, written by Mariah Huehner, for STELA Mobile comics that comes out on September 21st; a spread in Archaia’s Jim Henson’s Labyrinth Artists Tribute book; a secret project we’ve just started with BOOM!; and two webcomics: Symbol, by Audrey Redpath for Hiveworks, and our own personal webcomic Maskless, for Hiveworks/Mary’s Monster, both of which will come out later this year.